Joni Mitchell (born Roberta Joan Anderson; November 7, 1943)
– Part One: Joni Mitchell
by Mark Allred
“A singer, composer and lyricist of exceptional talent and unmatched influence, Joni Mitchell has crafted an extraordinary body of work spanning more than 40 years and is widely regarded as one of the brightest musical lights of recent generations. Fans, fellow musicians and critics have delighted in an ever-evolving creative journey, with songs both universal and profoundly personal. Her music has become a standard to which others are compared and which many aspire to copy, but its inventiveness and ineffable spirit make it decidedly her own.” – jonimitchell.com
“For three decades Joni Mitchell wrote songs that were equally daring in their personal revelations and their musical restlessness. They traced a woman’s romantic and intellectual life in progress, from bright-eyed aspiration to cosmopolitan wanderlust to political bitterness, from folky sweetness to pop sheen to open-ended, jazzy excursions. Along the way her music spawned countless disciples and admirers.” — Jon Pareles New York Times.
Rolling Stone magazine called her “one of the greatest songwriters ever,” while Allmusic said, “When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century.”
Who could have said it better? So much has been written today in regards to Joni Mitchell what more could anyone else possibly have to say. Yet there is so much left unsaid. Sometimes I wonder what effect it would have to grab people by the shoulders and shake them vigorously in an attempt to wake them up and get them to listen to Joni’s music. Early in her career there were only a couple of magazines that would write about her or for that matter, musicians, period. Mitchell and Rolling Stone had a controversial relationship early in the beginning when the magazine featured a “tree” illustrating all of Mitchell’s alleged romantic partners, primarily other musicians. Doubtful that anyone might expect that from even the Enquirer. This demonstrates the mentality that resented females who were independently successful on their own terms. It was hurtful and crude especially in the context of the era when the majority of their target audience had much more critical things to think about: Vietnam protests, racial riots, pollution, drugs, abortion, civil rights, and over population. Much like today but never before had such diverse social issues confronted so many, so young. The innocence of the time was fleeting, then gone. The optimism for change became indifference for survival. Talented songwriter/poets like Joni Mitchell reflected all of this in the mirror she held up to our faces. We only had to listen to hear the pain, the truth, and the prophesy; to be able to recognize ourselves in her open revealing self-sacrificing lyrics.
Her lyrics can make the most intelligent amongst us, think; the most secure, question; the most proud, doubt…but like the Beatles or Dylan she also gave us hope amidst the hopelessness.
The Joni Mitchell CDs available in the Manieri collection at this time include: Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mingus, and Shadows and Light (the tour released in 1980). I was surprised at first that a jazz collection, other than personal, would even include her work but when comparing the other female singers today that are being labeled as “jazz”; well it does make a lot sense in comparison. Today these CDs are the most widely recognized as her jazz influenced or jazz oriented albums although they were not considered jazz at the time of their release. Not every song was ever intended to be thought of as jazz. These are the releases where Joni progressively used jazz musicians in her band more and more but was still classified as pop until her music overtly completed metamorphosis unable to be pigeon holed any longer into a packaged category. Yet, her album Mingus peaked at #17 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. That album was the pinnacle to her jazz immersion. For that release she dedicated her time working with the great jazz musician, Charles Mingus co-writing songs just before he died. It was not a tribute album but it was the first time she had actually worked writing lyrics for another’s’ consideration. Often criticized for her experimental changes, the fact was Joni Mitchell never seemed capable of two consecutive albums sounding the same. That put her in a musical league of her own. The record companies were confused as to how to promote her and the jazz world did not welcome this “pop star” with open arms. Those albums were lumped in with and labeled as pop regardless of their content. The new musical genre “FUSION” had not yet been ordained although it certainly existed. The music industry at that time could not quiet comprehend a white girl from the Saskatoon prairie seriously performing jazz. Artists did not criss-cross the charts and categories. Country was country and jazz was jazz. Critics seemed confused as well. Steely Dan was praised for their use of the same jazz musicians that Joni Mitchell was criticized for using just a year or so earlier.
In a 1979 interview with Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone Joni commented “Here’s the thing,” she said forcefully, “You have two options. You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They’re going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing. But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So of the two options,” she concluded cheerfully, “I’d rather be crucified for changing.”
As a teenager, Joni taught herself ukulele and, later, guitar. Joni Anderson married folk-singer Chuck Mitchell, and attended the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary for a year but Mitchell then left, telling her mother: “I’m going to Toronto to be a folksinger.” In the summer of 1965, Chuck Mitchell took Joni with him to the United States. While living in Detroit, Chuck & Joni were regular performers at area coffee houses and bars and they quickly began to perform up and down the East coast until they divorced. Her 1969 album Clouds won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance 1970.
“I came through folk music simply because it was easy to get into it,” she continued. “You could play for three months and become a professional (well, she was capable in three months). In high school I was always writing poetry, but I never thought that poetry and song could be the same thing until Bob Dylan came along. The song that did it for me was ‘Positively Fourth Street.’ I owe much to Bobby for that.” So, with such a groundwork in folk music when did Joni Mitchell make the crossover from folk into jazz?
Anyone listening might not have initially acknowledged the point of no return but most fans were probably not surprised by her resulting evolution. It became more evident that to be her fan meant you had to be open to change. She was simply ahead of her time. Her first solo acoustic album, Song to a Seagull was released without the overdubs of sickening sweet orchestration or back-up chorus singers the record companies of the day felt essential to progressive folk music. Of course this was due to producer David Crosby and his pull with the record company. On Ladies of the Canyon no one can deny that the clarinet solo at the end of “For Free” by Paul Horn was unadulterated jazz. Depending on your definition of jazz it is difficult to pinpoint which album represents the crossover to jazz because of the seamless progression from one album to the next but that album definitely had a different sound from her first two. She no longer sounded solo but still had no band.
For the Roses included jazz sidemen Tom Scott, Wilton Felder, and Bobbye Hall. Other session players included Graham Nash and Stephen Stills. Court and Spark and the Hissing of Summer Lawns were considered by many to be her most accessible to most listeners. Used like seasoning on some songs, the who’s who of jazz session musicians dominated her other songs, with more solos and instrumental interpretations. The drum beat and bass structure became more independent. The listener was being seduced deeper and deeper into a different world. It would eventually be labeled jazz-pop but at no time did it ever resemble the buttery saccharine “Smooth” contemporary jazz that is presently found today. In January 1975, her album Court and Spark received four nominations for Grammy Awards, including Grammy Award for Album of the Year, for which Mitchell was the only woman nominated. She won only the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)
In Guitar Player, Martin Simpson called her “perhaps the most influential female guitarist of the century”.
Joni Mitchell has made the 2003 Rolling Stone Magazine list of 100 GREATEST GUITARISTS OF ALL TIME most certainly because of her open, or non-standard, tunings. While some of Mitchell’s most popular songs were written on piano, almost every song she composed on the guitar originated from the 50 or so different tunings, which have been referred to as “Joni’s weird chords.” The use of alternative tunings allows guitarists to produce accompaniment with more varied and wide-ranging textures. Mitchell’s use of alternative tunings and a highly rhythmic picking/strumming style creates a rich and unique guitar sound. Her right-hand picking/strumming technique has evolved to a looser and more rhythmic style, sometimes incorporating percussive “slaps”, featured on later releases. This obviously came about because she had no formal musical education. She is another musician by way of art school. She often employs a visual artist’s vocabulary when talking about music. “I know none of the numerics of music,” she explained. “I see music as fluid architecture. For me, the chords are colors that you stir into mutant shades, as in painting.” This in turn created a growing problem for touring because she would need to spend performance time personally tuning her guitars.
In 1995, Mitchell’s friend Fred Walecki, proprietor of Westwood Music in Los Angeles, developed a solution to alleviate her continuing frustration with using multiple alternate tunings in live settings. Walecki designed a Stratocaster-style guitar to function with the Roland VG-8 (Virtual Guitar), a system capable of configuring her numerous tunings electronically. While the guitar itself remained in standard tuning, the VG-8 encoded the pickup signals into digital signals which translated the altered tunings. This allowed Mitchell to use one guitar on stage, while an off-stage tech entered the pre-programmed tuning for each song in her set.
Today Joni still tours although she is devoting more time to her painting career than before. Her paintings have exhibited in Canada, Europe, and Japan. As a child victim of the Canadian polio epidemic her health has been vulnerable or somewhat compromised and may someday seriously affect her creative productivity. Always feeling she was on the outside of the music trade, the musical aspect of her life may be more easily abandoned with fewer regrets. In 1997, Mitchell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but did not attend the ceremony. She is probably one of the few people in the music industry today that is recognized specifically by her peers for her vast musical pioneering and undaunted integrity.
Part Two will include a short synopsis of her re-released CDs currently found in the Manieri collection.
Bibliography and resources:
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
Courtesy of Rolling Stone #296 – Cameron Crowe – July 26, 1979
POP MUSIC; Joni Mitchell Finds the Peace of Middle Age
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: March 17, 1991
“Harmonic Palette in Early Joni Mitchell”, p. 173. Author(s): Lloyd Whitesell. Source: Popular Music, Vol. 21, No. 2, (May, 2002), pp. 173–93. Published by: Cambridge University Press.
- Charlie Rose – Greenroom with Joni Mitchell
- Joni Mitchell on a Canadian TV show in 1994 explaining how “open tunings are a pain in the butt”.
- Joni Mitchell Canadian TV Profile 3/88 comments on learning to play piano.
- Greenpeace Canada – Amchitka CD: Interview James Taylor
- Eartha Kitt – “I Want To Be Evil” (Live Kaskad 1962) There are numerous career parallels between Eartha Kit and Joni Mitchell.
- Joni Mitchell the song “Twisted” from the 1974 album Court & Spark. No film clip. Music only for those who have never heard this song. Compare to “I Want To Be Evil”.